Public transport in a big city is essential for a good day out. For wheelchair and pushchair users alike, the big must is of course step-free access. As far as cities go, London is a pretty mixed bag. Where they've really tried (and where it was easy), it can be accessible for parents with pushchairs. But it's still a way away from being the baby-friendly city it aspires to be.
For London's underground and overground managers, I have a simple message: put yourself in a wheelchair and try to get around the city in the same way a walking commuter can. Let's not be unfair, several stations are a push-in-the-park for parents, but a lot of them aren't...
In the older stations there might be no lifts at all (sort of understandable, but couldn't you fix it?). In some stations there'll be a few lifts, but also areas you can only get to with steps (annoying). In other stations there will be lifts that take you from the surface right down next to the platform, and then give you five steps to get onto the platform (why! couldn't they just make the lift go down one more meter?). Little Bear was very unimpressed.
The lift at Russell Square lets you skip 175 steps down into the belly of the Earth, and then presents you with 5 unavoidable steps, right at the end (are you kidding? No one thought we should correct this Victorian spasm of underground design?). And it's not the only one that does this (I'm looking at you Covent Garden). It's like they're teasing you with a false sense of pushchair comfort in the lift, then sitting back and laughing as you struggle to carry the pram down the pointless last couple of stairs.
Then there are the stations that have been recently rebuilt, like Surrey Quays overground station, where they just forgot to put in a lift despite being rebuilt in 2012 (clearly a bunch of agile childless blokes ran the redesign). Contrast this to Denmark Hill station which is great for lifts on all platforms, and built at the same time!
But even with the big stations with lift access, they tend to take the minimal effort approach to lifts a step too far! At Westminster, it takes up to 3 lifts to change platform, at King's Cross, it can take around 5 lifts just to get out of the underground. I'm sure this was a little cheaper, but why does it have to take 10 minutes to escape the station. Just make a lift that goes all the way up. This is not to say that there isn't an easier way to get around. In Westminster for instance, there's a staff lift that access nearly all the platforms, but you can only use it if the other ones are broken... Nice. Best to let parents with screaming children take the long route round.
If you ask for step free access at stations, sometimes the staff will explain a complicated route to take and kindly ring ahead to help guide you through the maze to reach some hidden lifts (they exist at Bank if you ask, but you have to pay twice if you come in on the wrong line...). Other times they'll explain that you have to push your baby 15 minutes to another station.
Occasionally they'll offer to help carry the pushchair down the stairs, but you have to remove your sleeping baby, all bags, and anything under the pushchair before they do. Must be careful with the staff... Picture me carrying newly woken crying Little Bear, his carrier, nappy bag, formula bags and some shopping precariously down two flights of stairs. Whilst two guys twice my size carry empty pushchair weighing 10 kg...
There are a few saving graces though. If there are passengers around and it's not home time after a long day at work, the less busy commuters will help you carry your pushchair down stairs (although this isn't much help for wheelchairs). And there are some great lift accessible stations that have been designed to make things easier for parents and the disabled. But travelling with a baby or toddler can be tough, even on a good day. Only around 10 out of 62 tube stations have fully step-free access (very rough count) in Central London (Zone 1). I hope this'll be fixed in the redevelopment, but the London Overground work seemed to only address half the problems. Hopefully Transport for London can do better this time!
How does your city's transport network fare? Does this seem a bit unfair on TfL? Are other cities better/worse? Leave your thoughts below...
I'm Dave, dad of Little Bear. Also known as 'Pappa' to the little man as we try and bring out his Swedish roots
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